Monday, May 02, 2005

Use effective, readable typefaces and type sizes.

Fonts and serifs
Before the mid 1990s, there was a broad consensus that serifed typefaces were easier to read. Serifed typefaces are those that have little extensions, or "serifs" at the ends of the strokes of the letters. Apparently, these serifs made it easier for the eye to quickly and easily distinguish letters. Granted, we're talking about a very fine point here--reading delays measured in seconds over a page of text. Still, for typical documents, the recommendation was to use a serifed font. I like these:

  • Times New Roman
  • Georgia
  • Palatino
But today, that recommendation is not as rigid, for two reasons.

First, the modern reader is much more accustomed to sans-serif fonts and is able to read them quickly and easily.

Second, a lot of reading today is done on-screen, and screen resolutions dilute the strength of the serifed fonts.

So sans-serif fonts can be effective, and even in traditional legal documents I am beginning to see sans-serif fonts. Here are three:
  • Trebuchet (used in this blog)
  • Arial (a popular font)
  • Comic Sans

If you use a sans-serif font for a legal document, you do run a small risk that it will seem informal. That's why I recommend using a serifed font for most legal documents. The document will look professional and traditional. That's safe.

Type sizes
I'm a big fan of using a larger-than-normal font in legal documents. I tend to use Times New Roman 13-point type. I push my margins in to 1.3 inches to shorten the line length of the text. I also single-space my documents unless court rules require double-spacing. I find that using 12-point type and 1-inch margins makes a single-spaced the document very crowded. And in fact I believe that's the main reason so many legal documents are double-spaced: to give the reader a break from the dense, crowded look of 12-point type with 1-inch margins. (And please don't tell me that legal documents are double-spaced for readability; we easily read books, magazines, and newspapers all the time, and none of those are double-spaced.)

Mixing fonts
It can be effective to use more than one font or type size in a single document. But you must be careful and wise. Three points to remember:

First, generally avoid using more than two fonts in a single document. To use more can make the document look busy or, worse, amateur.

Second, if you're going to use different fonts, make them very different. Don't risk any chance the reader will be unsure if you're using a different font. I recommend using a serifed font for the main text and a sans-serif font for the headings, as I've done in this post. As you can see, my favorites are Arial Bold for the headings and Times New Roman for the main text. This approach makes the headings really stand out from the main text. I've used this approach in letters, court documents, and transactional drafting.

Third, vary type sizes sparingly. I limit larger type sizes to two situations:
(1) When text must be conspicuous by statute, a larger type size can work well.
(2) Document titles, like
Motion to Dismiss or Construction Contract can be in a larger type size.

And by the way, there is still almost never a place for
fancy scripts
colored type in legal documents.

For further reading, see Robin Williams, The PC is Not a Typewriter (Peachpit Press 1992); Robin Williams, The Non-Designer's Design Book: Design and Typographic Principles for the Visual Novice (Peachpit Press 1994).

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